Why I Don’t Go Full-Wilsonian
“I want to be like Doug Wilson when I grow up. My aim is to go full-Wilson in life. But to get there I must not go all-in Wilsonian…”
A guest post by Steven Opp
Doug Wilson is one of my heroes. I check his blog all the time, have read many of his books, and whenever a new interview or discussion with him appears on the internet, I tune in. When it comes to family living, cultural engagement, and politics he is probably the most influential person in my life. I love Doug Wilson and want to be like him when I grow up!
Wilson recently wrote a blog post titled “The Invisible Mainspring of Human Conflict.” It is a history of four major paradigm shifts in his theology over the years. They are:
- Eschatology (he became postmillennial in 1985)
- Soteriology (he became a Calvinist in 1988)
- Covenant (he became a paedobaptist in 1993)
- Girard (he became a partial-Girardian in 2006)
It was a fun read to see how the Lord has, over time, molded and sharpened Wilson’s views.
The article spends the most time on the fourth one on the list. The anthropologist/literary critic René Girard has a fascinating theory about the source of human conflict which Wilson says has helped him in understanding why clashes sometimes happen the way they do. He concludes, “Since I first read Girard, I have still gotten into conflicts. But I am not really mystified in the midst of them any more.”
While acknowledging Girard’s insights regarding desire and conflict as being extremely important in seeing what is really going on in the biblical text, Wilson also recognizes where Girard misses the mark. He says he finds Girard’s scriptural insights to be about 80% helpful, and where the good Frenchman falls short is mostly due to his views of the atonement.
Not only does Wilson only give Girard’s biblical analysis four out of five stars, he also warns of applying Girardian human conflict theory across the board lest it be abused. In other words, if you observe every motivation and discord through a Girardian lens you’ll miss the forest for the trees. Wilson explains, “perhaps you have absolutized the concept, which is another way of not grasping it. That is one of the reasons I don’t go all in with Girard—I find him too valuable, and don’t want to lose his insights. Going full Girardian means ceasing to be Girardian.”
I agree with everything Wilson says about Girardian theory, the fourth paradigm shift in his theological journey. What I would like to do in this essay is to show how in regards to Wilson’s other three paradigm shifts I am on board to a similar extent, about 80%. I find his views in these areas to be about 80% helpful. And where I believe he has gone 20% too far in each paradigm is where he loses its spirit. In other words, in these three areas going full Wilsonian means ceasing to be Wilsonian.
A Quick Stop in Narnia
Before doing this, let me first introduce a metaphor which I think will be useful in explaining what I mean.
In addition to reading much of what Wilson writes, I sometimes read what he recommends. One of the books he gives five out of five stars to in a review is Planet Narnia by Michael Ward. It is a very thorough and fascinating guide to seeing how C.S. Lewis intentionally themed each of his Chronicles of Narnia books after one of the “seven heavens,” the planets recognized by the medievals. I just finished Planet Narnia, thoroughly enjoyed it, and highly recommend it.
Ward explains how the first book in the series, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, takes place in the “world” of Jupiter. The themes and messages are all “jovial” (Jove is another name for Jupiter). Jupiter is the planet of merriment, royalty, and springtime. It is also the largest planet, and according to Lewis the most important, ruling the night skies. If you’ve read the stories, you know the first chronicle is about jolly Aslan bringing spring and enthroning the four children in Narnia.
The final book in the series, The Last Battle, has a Saturnine theme. Saturn, in contrast to Jupiter, is dark and cold. The positive word to describe the spirit of Saturn is “contemplative”. But Saturn is also regarded as the planet behind ugliness, old age, fate, irony, and death. All of these concepts are heavy in The Last Battle. An ugly old ape tricks the Narnians by covering a donkey in a lionskin in place of the real Aslan before one catastrophe follows another and eventually all the characters die.
Both Jupiter and Saturn are important and have their roles to play, but the contrast is sharp. Saturn is about contemplation. Jupiter is about play. Saturn is godly sorrow. Jupiter is godly joy. Saturn is Father Time. Jupiter is Father Christmas.1Girard was born on Christmas Day and his middle name is Noël, a fun foretaste of his wintery secularist anthropology in time converting and fleshing out so much of the Word of God. Girard’s work, which focuses on chronic envy, is ultimately a jovial gift.
The Last Battle, while being Saturnine, does not end with ultimate death. Rather, it ends with a beautiful eucatastrophe, Tolkien’s word for a surprise happy ending. Or, you might say, it ends with a Jupiter ending. The jovial tone of the final chapters of the story is more like the The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
The point Lewis makes is that though Saturn is big and important, he doesn’t get the final word. Rather Jupiter, king of the heavens, trumps gloomy Saturn and has the last laugh.
What I would like to do is to use Saturn and Jupiter to represent the difference between theology and the spirit of theology. Or, to put it another way, between the theology and the theologian.
Theology, like Saturn, is contemplative. When taken by itself, it is cold, dark ink on paper. Theology is important because ideas need to be presented in order to be understood. But for the words to truly be applied they must be transcended. They must be traced up to the spirit behind them, whether it be the deeper meaning or the character of the writer which the words fail to capture. This significance, the “take home”, is Jupiter above Saturn, what goes beyond the contemplation and has a life of its own.
Doug Wilson is a Jupiter. He is a jolly man. His theology is his Saturn, his contemplations. Where it is correct it is functioning in the appropriate Saturnine way, channeling truth and the character of Wilson himself in it so that others may jump on board. Where it is incorrect it morphs into things like oldness and fate and stillborn irony. Wrong theology is Saturn eclipsing Jupiter. Where I disagree with Wilson on his theology, the 20%, is where I see the contemplations becoming inflated and things going dark, hiding the real meaning and the real man. In other words, going full Saturn means ceasing to be Jupiter. Going full Wilsonian is ceasing to be Wilsonian.
I will now take you through Wilson’s first three paradigms and discuss where I see Saturn being contemplative and wise and where I see it hovering in the way of Jupiter’s spring.
Entering the Wardrobe
Wilson’s book Heaven Misplaced was the second book of his I ever read (after Persuasions) and it was like an oasis in the wilderness for me. It was also a big reason I started reading more of his work and began paying attention to what was going on in Moscow. The clear headed thinking in Heaven Misplaced that Jesus might not be back any time soon, and without any dream-killing disclaimers like “but no one really knows the day or hour so be ready (instead of going out and changing the world)” was wonderful to read.
In addition to learning about this positive eschatological outlook, I also saw it in action. Wilson’s church is full of people who believe in bringing Heaven to Earth in every capacity, and when I lived in Moscow I had the benefit of watching them do it, making schools, businesses, and families all with the kingdom building goals of dominion and legacy.
Too Much Chronicle and Not Enough Narnia
So why does Wilson’s postmillennial eschatology only get four and not five stars? Saturn refuses to give up his seat for Jupiter when the idea that the world won’t end soon extends into the assumption that it might not end for a very, very long time. I’ve heard Wilsonian postmillennialists use language like, “a hundred thousand years from now…” I find this to be irresponsible at best and unbiblical at worst.
First of all, it neglects to take nature into account. I understand that most environmental warnings today are hoaxes. But the oceans will fill with salt eventually, and the sun will one day burn out. To suggest that it won’t is making some of the same errors evolutionists make when they posit millions of years on the front end of things. This world is strong, but not invincible, and it cannot endure the beatings of Father Time for infinity in either direction.
From a more theological perspective, if the end comes when the world is discipled and the last enemy is death, to not put any sort of timeline on that limits the power of God. Just as atheists think they can hide the Creator Father behind a bunch of zeros when talking quantitatively about time past, so this sort of postmil thinking buries the Recreator Holy Spirit behind a bunch of zeros when talking about the future. God does not rush, but it will not take him a million years to wash the 10/40 Window (which is already much cleaner than it was twenty years ago), and we won’t be beaming to other colonies on other planets as we wait for peace in the Middle East. Syria will become Christian, Ceres will not.
Saturn has a Curfew
The spirit of postmillennial thought is wonderful. Let Christians be free and comfortable in this wonderful world. Let us faithfully endure death as we work to overcome all of the other enemies, building beautiful cities and cultures as we go. But let us not forget that Jove has the last laugh, and that Saturn’s old age will not define the future. Death must be with us for a time, but not for that long of a time.
Providence Picks a Picker
My friend David Salazar, now fifty, grew up a hard working kid filling baskets with the fruit that grew on the trees of central California. But when he wasn’t at work, he and his brothers did things their own way and his life was savage and base. One day when he was in his early twenties an evangelist came to his door and David bent the knee. The first book he read after that besides the Bible was Calvin’s Institutes, and it changed his life. He said that for the first time he understood what a loving father is, how he relates to his children, and that God himself is such a father.
My understanding is that this story of God’s grace and paternity encapsulates the “real Calvin”, so to speak. The Jupiter Calvin. The Calvin with no “ism” or “ist” attached. And when I think of Calvin, and reformed theology in general, I think of the sovereignty of God above all things, along with a rich and impactful church history.
Avoid all Isms Except for Prisms
Where I think Calvinists, Wilson included, fall short is in their “marketing,” so to speak. When the guy on the street hears “Calvinism,” he instinctually thinks of fatalism. He instinctually thinks of Saturn and not Jupiter. “But you don’t really understand Calvin” the Calvinist so often must explain. Well, is this a problem with the man on the street or with Calvinism itself? If the distinction is so important shouldn’t it be a bit easier to explain? A bit easier to understand?
One illustration Wilson uses to communicate the sovereignty of God is that God is writing history like Shakespeare would write a play. Can Hamlet challenge Shakespeare for how he wrote his part? Neither should man call out God for how he wrote his part. And the distance between God and man is infinitely greater than the distance between Shakespeare and Hamlet.
This is all true, but we also have to remember that the distance between God and man is infinitely smaller than between Shakespeare and Hamlet. Shakespeare never became one of the characters in his play. God did. To put it another way, as Mike Bull has tweeted, “Was Jesus a Calvinist or an Arminian? Both. The incarnation was the sovereignty of God and the will of Man united at last.”
Calvinism is helpful in emphasizing God’s sovereignty. But the Bible doesn’t speak in these sorts of terms much (predestination, reprobation, etc.) The Bible isn’t that Saturnine about it. But as long as they wear the label, the “ism”, Calvinists are being Saturnine about it, and those reformed beards start to look less like Calvin’s and more like the beard of Chronos. At a certain point this sort of contemplation bends towards fatalism and people don’t see the living Spirit of the Father in Calvin’s theology as Salazar did when he first read him. Rather, they just see a casket with tulips on top.
I Elect the Big Man
So I’m with Wilson 80% of the way on soteriology. But as for how to best communicate the mystery of the marriage of divine and human agency, I’ll fall for the gravitas of Chesterton every time. His cracks at Calvinism tickle my funny bone a little more than Wilson’s pokes at Arminianism. Jovial G.K., in this regard, takes the cake—and no one made him do it.
Cair Paravel is for Real
Which came first, the king or his crown? Covenantal theology is wonderful because it emphatically says “Crown!” without any shame. Lewis’ goal in using planet imagery in Narnia was to emphasize that there are constant things going on beyond nature. You are born into something bigger than you.
Covenantal theology also makes sense of many other things as well, and is useful in debates regarding evolution, marriage, and politics, to name a few. It is very important for navigating one’s way in the world.
The fundamentals of the Federal Vision theology which Wilson agrees with affirm the connection between the sacraments and the covenant. This is important because it preserves the power of the sacraments. When someone is baptized into the kingdom of God, something objective happens. They are now enlisted, so to speak. And like a spouse in a marriage, they are in whether they like it or not. Union with Christ is real, and so are the means of entering into it.
So far so good. But when it comes to covenant theology administration, Wilson drives 100 where the speed limit is 80. And the lead (the Saturnine metal) in his foot is paedosacraments.
Wilson recently admitted on a podcast that at first glance at scripture the Baptists have a better argument when it comes to who to baptize than the paedobaptists do; you don’t see a bunch of babies being dunked, let alone sprinkled, in the New Testament. But, he argues, if you take the Bible as a whole you have a “juggernaut” of structural/typological evidence which supports paedosacraments.
Most Baptists can’t take down that juggernaut. They end up feeling outsmarted, shrug off the argument because they sense that paedobaptism is still weird, and go back to dunking converts. For me, I never wanted to be outsmarted so I took the paedobaptists’ conclusions on authority. But there was always a part inside of me that still thought it strange. It wasn’t until I started reading Mike Bull that I saw exactly why.
What appealed to me about Bull is that he didn’t try to fight the “covenant theology” juggernaut. He commandeered it. Standing on the shoulders of typological giants James Jordan, Peter Leithart, and Doug Wilson he actually took the juggernaut, figured out what a lot of the seemingly useless buttons and levers do, and showed how the paedobaptists had misinterpreted its trajectory. Furthermore, far from being the juggernaut itself, paedobaptism (what he calls “bapcision”, an ugly hybrid of baptism and circumcision) is in fact the rope tying the Federal Vision juggernaut to a stake and keeping it from being released and changing the world.
The main way Bull cuts the paedobaptistic cord is by acknowledging the similarities (covenantal juggernaut) between circumcision and baptism, but also the differences (Baptist horse sense). To understand these differences, you need to read more of Bull’s writing on baptism. You will need to immerse yourself in biblical symbols before it will begin to make sense but as you do, you’ll start to see how the pieces don’t just fit together, they fit in three dimensions.2See The Myth of Covenant Membership. As Bull says, “Bad theologians need to think in pictures. Good theologians need to think in moving pictures.” After reading Bull for a while, I started to see these moving pictures. And like Wilson says of Girard’s scriptural insights, “Once you see them there, you can never unsee them.”
Here is the main thing that those with a strong understanding of the covenant have a hard time wrapping their minds around because they still see it as flat: Every person on the planet, that includes Doug Wilson’s baptized grandchildren and the baby born to an ISIS leader, are born under the New Covenant. They are all born under the same King, Jesus Christ, and his circumcision, that is, his crucifixion, is the new blood boundary encompassing all people—not just Jews, and not just the baptized. Like the Jews under Mosaic Law, everyone within this boundary is under the same terms of faithfulness to the covenant: metanoeite and believe.3See Paranoia and Metanoia. To baptize a baby and say they are now in this covenant is therefore redundant. Christ is Lord of all, wet or dry, churched or unchurched.
So the covenant has to do with authority (the crown), and who wears it (Jesus Christ). But here’s the third dimension that makes paedobaptists go cross-eyed: to truly be baptized into Christ requires a confession. This confession is done in faith, which comes by hearing. It is not taken hold of by being born according to the flesh (Christian parents) but by being born according to the Spirit. It is not about being born into a Christian heritage (generations) but about being born again as a co-heir with Christ (regeneration). It is not about who your earthly father is, or your godfather, but who your Heavenly Father is, your Father God. Now you are not just under the New Covenant in Christ’s blood (like every child in the world since Jesus came), you are now an ambassador of the New Covenant in Christ’s blood, washed on the inside by it and adopted into His family. You aren’t just at the event. You wear the staff uniform. You don’t go from being outside of Christ’s realm to then being under the crown (complete with expectations to behave as a Christian, a new form of law) as “bapcision” would have you do. No, a biblical baptism takes from being merely under the crown to wearing a crown of your own.
Covenant theology that veers toward paedosacraments creates an add-on to the Gospel: Christ plus covenant (a word rarely used in the New Testament). But Christ is the New Covenant.4See Jesus and Covenant – Part 1. This is the key to truly understanding the covenant. Everyone is under him. But only those who have heard him and have seen him, who believe, who share His Spirit, are in him. You have to go to Narnia and meet Aslan before you are given a seat on a throne in the castle by the sea. You have to encounter Jesus. He is the Jupiter that outshines Saturn. And that impersonal extra 20% Saturnine paedosacramental covenant theology is covering the face of Jupiter, the face of the King.
I will make one final illustration about the bleakness of paedobaptism which goes undetected by those who practice it but is obvious to those on the outside who see a donkey tail poking out from under the lionskin. Saturn is the planet of irony, and that is good and necessary. But it can also fall flat when unchecked by Jupiter. Paedosacramentalists think they are revealing a cute irony in the gospel, that Christ saves us before we even realized we needed saving, that little children who have no knowledge are as valuable as the wise old sage, for God is no respector of persons. True as it is, the joke itself is in poor taste because the butt of it is still in diapers and isn’t playing along.
What makes a biblical baptism jovial is that the sinner who the joke is on is laughing along with Jesus as he or she intentionally follows Him in slipping on the banana peel of recognizing one’s own fallen humanity and voluntarily dying with Him in baptism in order to rejoice with Him when brought back out of the water as a royal (jovial) priest-king. Since confession is laughing at the ridiculousness of your own sinful rebellion because you’re a new person and on the other side of it, running this play on those who do not understand what is happening is cruel, dark, and leveling. Sending these little ones to the baptismal grave without their “getting it” is the kind of black comedy Saturn gravitates to when left to himself.
False baptisms create confusion and place a burden of law and accountability upon the shoulders of those who not only cannot bear it – like child soldiers or child brides – but also did not choose it. This is Father Time eating away at his kids with a spiritual responsibility they didn’t sign up for. Baptism is life to the “twice-born” but it is creeping death to the “once-born.” In dark seasons when children need comfort they are encouraged to look at a cold theological abstraction instead of their gifts, lest they become self-reliant. But “leaning” on a baptism you never chose, a rite which basically spiritualises everything natural, removes the opportunity to discover personally that the flesh isn’t enough. So an exhortation to “remember your baptism” is about as helpful as finding coal in your stocking. There’s nothing you can do with it. The true gospel paradox is that sinful children don’t need contemplation (law). They need Christmas.
Wilson (Not his Tamed Juggernaut) is on the Move
Doug Wilson is the jovial king of Christmas. He knows how to be merry. He knows how to enjoy the good things of life with a full heart. He has a tribe of joyful children and grandchildren to prove it. But this has nothing to do with paedobaptism and everything to do with faithful Christian parenting. It is a result of saturation love, not saturation water. It is of the gospel falling on soft ears, not water sprinkled on soft cranial tissue. It is a legacy of celebrating Christ’s birthday with gifts, not celebrating what family or church family you were born into by good fortune.
Of course, Wilson is not consciously boasting in his own blood or society, but his 20% counterfeit Saturnine covenantal theology is. Wilson’s children and grandchildren (the ones old enough to have spiritual eyes of faith) are believers not because they have looked in the mirror and seen a fake lion skin (bapcision) that some apish theology told them was Aslan. No, they believe because they have seen Aslan himself. And they have probably mostly seen Him not on but in and through their confessing father and mother who wear the royal robes of Christian witness.
Reaching for the Stars
Like I said, I want to be like Doug Wilson when I grow up. My aim is to go full-Wilson in life. I want to be a jolly and contemplative man with a grand and glorious legacy. I want five out of five stars! But to get there I must not go all-in Wilsonian. I find him too valuable and don’t want to lose his insights. So I will continue to follow him, staying close to the spirit of his work and the spirit of his person, but steering clear of those Saturnine traps of old age, fate, and flat irony which would cause me to miss out on the good faith of Jupiter: Christ in Wilson’s paradigms, the hope of glorious theology.
|1.||↑||Girard was born on Christmas Day and his middle name is Noël, a fun foretaste of his wintery secularist anthropology in time converting and fleshing out so much of the Word of God. Girard’s work, which focuses on chronic envy, is ultimately a jovial gift.|
|2.||↑||See The Myth of Covenant Membership.|
|3.||↑||See Paranoia and Metanoia.|
|4.||↑||See Jesus and Covenant – Part 1.|